Can Iraq Win This War? An Unlikely Scenario

Some friends – specifically Greg and Lair, the Brothers Stene – have recently been pondering how, exactly, we’re going to win this war – and by “win” we’re talking about terms of resolution, not merely body count or square miles under technical control. Superior firepower notwithstanding, there comes a time when this turns into a streetfight, a door-to-door campaign through a city with a population the size of Chicago and Houston combined, against an opponent that has a distinct home-turf advantage and nothing at all to lose. If we can’t get Saddam, and if his generals don’t sell him out, this has serious ugly potential, something our military leadership has acknowledged.

Now, add to this a second question: how can Iraq win? This is the really tough one, because at a glance it looks like the best they can hope for is to take massive losses, but somehow wait us out and hope we lose our will. They aren’t going to drive us from their soil via direct application of military force, so under what conditions would we say they have won, and what would they have to do in order to win obviously and conclusively, if such a thing is possible?

Believe it or not, I think there is at least one scenario by which Saddam can win outright (that doesn’t involve the rest of the Muslim world joining in, which seems unlikely for the moment). I’m not sure I see this as likely, but it might be something for our leaders to think about, if they haven’t already, because if it were to come down this way, the implications for American influence and status in the world would be devastating. Further, even if the scenario doesn’t play out this way this time, I doubt this will America’s last foray into international conflict, and the object lesson remains there for any future Saddam to learn.

Now, if we might begin with a martial arts metaphor, our method of attack on Iraq is what you’d call a “hard style” – it’s a direct, aggressive application of force aimed at essentially beating the opponent senseless. Boot to the lips, lather, rinse, repeat. How do you counter a hard style, assuming you lack the capability of effectively waging combat through application of your own hard style? Simple – you employ a “soft style,” a strategy aimed at using the opponent’s momentum and force against him. He throws a brutal punch, and all of a sudden you aren’t quite there, a little misdirection, a little subtle unbalancing maneuver, and next thing he knows he’s on the floor.

If you’re Saddam, what’s the soft style you can use against the US, which is currently employing the most vicious hard style the world of war has probably ever seen? Well, for some time the Bush administration has been wanting us to believe that Iraq has provided aid to al Qaeda, but suppose we turn that dynamic around and ask instead how might Iraq have benefitted from bin Laden. No, I’m not suggesting there was a formal exchange of any sort, but rather, what might Iraq have learned if they had taken the time to study al Qaeda and their methods?

So, a scenario, offered for your entertainment. As a caveat, this little speculation makes some assumptions, the most important of which is that somebody in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle – perhaps Saddam himself – is willing to take a long view of the current conflict.

Let’s hypothesize that Saddam has been paying attention to al Qaeda and other terror organizations and learning from their distributed organizational techniques. Let’s suppose that over the past few months he has not only been equipping his Republican Guard units to face the coming attack head-on, but has also invested heavily in preparing a contingency campaign, a fall-back strategy, where once it’s apparent that the battlefield is lost, these units disperse and “melt” away, disappearing invisibly into Iraq’s cities and villages. Say they’ve spent months laying in the operational and technological infrastructure needed to convert the great big, lumbering 20th Century army into thousands of small, semi-autonomous cells – the invisible army of the 3rd Millennium.

The battle ensues, US forces hammer away, Iraqi leaders put up what resistance they can, but eventually see that they’re losing the battle of the last century, so they give the order to melt. The first act of the melt assures that the invading force finds itself assuming control of a humanitarian quagmire, as the elite Iraqi Guard launches a quick, crippling strike against its own country’s survival infrastructure, essentially targeting the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (the physiological and safety levels, basically). Any facility or system for the delivery of food, health care, electricity, clean water, etc., is disrupted. Given what we know of Saddam, these units might even release slow working biological agents into the population, something nasty, debilitating, and contagious. A hantavirus outbreak, maybe, something that will require an inordinate amount of attention by whoever is in charge. This can be accomplished quickly and efficiently because it has been planned for months, and it can be done in a way that causes the confused, terrified population to blame US bombs, not their own troops and leaders.

The US marches triumphantly into Baghdad, declares victory, and looks around to discover that it has conquered the Stone Age. It surveys hunger and disease on a scale it can barely imagine – a scene that will require hundreds of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and a couple years, at least, to bring under control.

But the Republican Guard is gone. Mostly gone, anyway. And it will not be lost on American forces that there are a lot of missing black hats, and they will certainly set about trying to identify former soldiers and round them up. How successful they are depends in large measure on how the US is viewed by the general citizenry, and we can expect a mixed bag. A number of these soldiers would be fingered, probably, and some indeterminate number of cells might be busted. But due to the very nature of the organizational structure, quite a lot of cells would survive.

They might lie dormant for a while, but periodically operations would be carried out – against US troops, against humanitarian workers, against any Western economic development operations (read, oil companies) that dared set up camp in Iraq, and most crucially, against the humanitarian infrastructure. Anything that can make life better for the civilian population is a target – hospitals, schools, food convoys – and even if these operations claim innocent Iraqi lives, it is entirely possible that US forces will be blamed for their failure to provide the promised security.

So instead of rapid relief, prosperity, freedom, etc., the Iraqi people are treated to a lingering hell that, even if slightly better than what they had before the war, is certainly nowhere near the boom they might have hoped for. In short, Saddam is gone, but are you really better off? Remember after the fall of Communism in Russia, when significant numbers of people found themselves longing for the good old days, when they stood inline for hours to buy a roll of toilet paper? Uh-huh – imagine this collective mentality festering in the bowels of Baghdad.

But what about Saddam and his subhuman offspring? Well, somewhere between now and the arrival of the liberators he accepts that offer of sanctuary from Bahrain (or maybe slinks off into exile somewhere else, disappearing into the secure fold of any number of sympathizers he might have in the Arab world or beyond). He’s gone, but not dead, and certainly not forgotten. And after a period of months, during which the US sinks to the knees, then the hips, into the quicksand that post-war Iraq has become, he appears in an exclusive interview on Al Jazeera.

This is a new, well-spun Saddam, who cries for his people, for the losses they have endured at the hands of an imperialist America that only wanted the oil after all. And so on. And if resentment against the US has been simmering before, what happens now? A growing sentiment in favor of returning to Saddam’s Iraq, because humans can’t help romanticizing the past, and the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know, etc. While he remains defiant regarding the US, he shows his people a glimmer of hope, a vision of the glory of Iraq restored, of the triumphant return of their favorite son from exile, of the eternal victory of the spirit of the Iraqi people as the last beaten American occupier, head bowed in defeat and dishonor, steps onto the last transport out of Baghdad.

Soft style. Maybe it doesn’t happen quickly – maybe Saddam dies in exile, but if he does his martyrdom only empowers his sons, who vow to continue fighting in the name of the people, who have no doubt noticed that a disproportionate amount of American money has been concentrated around the oil fields of Basra.

There are plenty of reasons why nothing like this can possibly happen. But hey, it’s just a flight on fancy, and I’m sure nobody in Iraq is smart enough to have thought of this.

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